Ford Nix: Detroit bluegrass pioneer

On Sunday, October 14, before dawn, musician Ford Nix passed away in his sleep. A popular, yet humble man, Nix played an important role in Detroit’s 20th century country music scene.

Wilma Ann, Ford Nix, Curly Dan

Ford Nix (center) at a picking session with Curly Dan and Wilma Ann in Hazel Park, Michigan, late 1950s. (Courtesy Wilma Ann Holcomb)

On Sunday, October 14, before dawn, Ford Nix passed away in his sleep. A popular and personable man, Nix played a prominent role in Detroit’s 20th century country music scene.

Born in Blairsville, Georgia, in 1932, Nix was a young teen-ager when he discovered the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. His humorous nature was pretty well developed, so he picked up a banjo and combined picking and comedy in his act. After working with Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s medicine shows in the region, at age 17 he moved to Detroit, where he hired into a Chrysler factory. In Michigan he made the rounds of barn dances and nightclubs, including Casey Clark’s shows. At the time, Nix’s bluegrass style presented a unique sound among the western swing and honky tonk played by most groups in town.

Nix entered the air force in 1953, spending most of his deployment in Japan. He played music with air force buddies, including Harold Jenkins, later known as Conway Twitty. Four years later, Nix picked up where he left off in Detroit, returning to Chrysler and jamming with Ray Taylor and others. By then, bluegrass in Detroit was attracting crowds in nightclubs, with the likes of Jimmy Martin, Curly Dan, Buster Turner, Jimmy Lee Williams, and Marvin Cobb leading groups and cutting records.

Ford Nix and Bob Mason

Ford Nix and WEXL Royal Oak disk jockey Bob Clark, 1963. (Courtesy Ford Nix)

In 1959 Nix made his first record for Jim Henson’s Clix label in Troy, Michigan. In 1960 he joined the cast of Billy Martin’s “Michigan Jamboree,” a country music variety show on Jackson television. While keeping his job at Chrysler, Nix toured with stars from Nashville through the 1960s. He performed on Ernest Tubb’s “Midnight Jamboree” at WSM radio Nashville. He recorded with Wendy Smith at Fortune Records, and with the Supremes at Motown, where he cut some unreleased music (check out Robb Klein’s comment at the previous link). He also made his own albums, including one with Frank Buchanan, one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, along with Roy McGinnis and the Sunnysiders.

Nix traveled quite a bit, and became a well-known and respected entertainer in both country and bluegrass circles. He retired from Chrysler in 1981, and concentrated on several business ventures besides playing music. I tell a lengthier tale in the Detroit country music book, which includes plenty of quotations from the inimitable Ford Nix.


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